LOS ANGELES - Like most struggling stage actors in the Twin Cities, Mark Povinelli needed a part-time job. If only he hadn't picked such a lousy one. Povinelli wound up as a salesman at Gap Kids in the Mall of America, which would be just fine -- if he weren't 3 feet 9.

"Every time I walked around a rack of clothes, I'd scare the crap out of someone because they thought I was a kid," said Povinelli, who also paid the bills by hosting at the Loring Cafe. "Then there were the kids always asking me, 'Why are you so small?' It was the worst."

The days of pitching Hello Kitty sweaters appear to be over.

Povinelli used his six years in Minneapolis to hone his craft and prepare for a Hollywood career that has led to a role as Todd the barback on NBC's "Are You There, Chelsea?" The sitcom has been criticized for its vulgarity and routinely finishes fourth in its Wednesday night time slot. But it does offer Povinelli, 40, the opportunity to prove he can make it in the business without always playing one of Santa's elves or serving as a stand-in for child actors.

It's a trap that is mercilessly satirized by Warwick Davis in the upcoming Ricky Gervais mockumentary "Life's Too Short" and altogether avoided in the HBO drama "Game of Thrones," with Peter Dinklage turning in an Emmy-winning performance as a lordly dwarf.

Not that Povinelli expects audiences to see him as a typical leading man.

"I would not want to be part of a show that ignores my size. It's part of who I am," he said. "I'm a little person before I'm an Italian, before I'm white, before I'm male. To ignore that would be counterintuitive. But the show doesn't belabor it. I'm not the butt of the joke. I was the first person to be nervous about where it was going. I was cynical that by Episode Three, I would end up in a diaper. But it didn't happen."

Povinelli's first significant role in the Twin Cities was not written for a little person. He came from Ohio in 1993 because he and his three best friends liked the idea of living in an arts community without Chicago's congestion.

Loring Playhouse director Jason McLean quickly cast him as a medical quack in the Marx Brothers farce "Room Service."

He earned his greatest raves for the role of Bilbo Baggins in Children's Theatre Company's production of "The Hobbit."

"Povinelli's performance is a boon to the show," wrote Star Tribune theater critic Peter Vaughn in a 1997 review. "He finds a gentle, fearful core to this small creature and builds his portrayal around it. His Bilbo moves easily from hesitance to bravado with credible steps for growth in between while always reminding us that this adventurer is young at heart."

Povinelli hasn't been back to the Twin Cities since 2005, when he played the abusive-husband role in a worldwide tour of the Henrik Ibsen drama "A Doll's House." He said he'd be eager to return, especially if he could work at the Guthrie.

Just don't expect him to stop by Gap Kids.